Birds show huge variation in color displays evolved for communication. However, among colored phenotypic traits, eyes remain largely overlooked, with only a few studies suggesting a potential signaling function or a role in mate recognition and crypsis. Iris color is a remarkably striking feature in the wholly cryptic pattern of many owls, and may potentially play a signaling function, a possibility so far neglected. Here, we studied variation and potential signaling of iris yellowness as an indicator of quality in parent-offspring communication and other social contexts in the Little Owl (Athene noctua) and Eurasian Scops-Owl (Otus scops). Yellowness did not differ between the sexes; however, adults of the two species had more intensely yellow irises than owlets. Most of variation in iris yellowness of owlets occurred between rather than within nests and seemed to be linked to parental qualities of Little Owls, but was unrelated to condition among Eurasian Scops-Owl owlets. In adults, however, we found that iris yellowness of females was positively associated with nest success (an index of female fitness) in Little Owls, but not in Eurasian Scops-Owls. This study suggests that iris color variation is unlikely to play a role in parent-offspring communication for these two owl species, but that iris yellowness of female Little Owls may potentially play a signaling role in social contexts, a possibility that should be studied in the future.
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Vol. 54 • No. 3